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There was a moment when the United States had the Vietnam War wrapped up, writes military historian Lewis Sorley (biographer of two Vietnam-era U.S. Army generals, Creighton Abrams and Harold Johnson). "The fighting wasn't over, but the war was won," he says in this convention-shaking book. "This achievement can probably best be dated in late 1970." South Vietnam was ready to carry on the battle without American ground troops and only logistical and financial support. Sorley says that replacing General Westmoreland with Abrams in 1968 was the key. "The tactics changed within fifteen minutes of Abrams's taking command," remarked one officer. Abrams switched the war aims from destruction to control; he was less interested in counting enemy body bags than in securing South Vietnam's villages.
A Better War is unique among histories of the Vietnam War in that it focuses on the second half of the conflict, roughly from Abrams's arrival to the fall of Saigon in 1975. Other volumes, such as Stanley Karnow's Vietnam and Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, tend to give short shrift to this period. Sorley shows how the often-overlooked Abrams strategy nearly succeeded--indeed, Sorley says it did succeed, at least until political leadership in the United States let victory slip away. Sorley cites other problems, too, such as low morale among troops in the field, plus the harmful effects of drug abuse, racial disharmony, and poor discipline. In the end, the mighty willpower of Abrams and diplomatic allies Ellsworth Bunker and William Colby was not enough. But, with its strong case that they came pretty close to winning, A Better War is sure to spark controversy. --John J. Miller
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